Like it has so many times this season, the USC women’s basketball team responded when its back was against the wall.
Trailing by double digits midway through the second half, the Women of Troy (20-13) rallied to beat UC Santa Barbara 67-64 in the opening round of the Women’s National Invitational Tournament. Junior guard Ashley Corral came off the bench to lead USC with 15 points, including four key three-pointers when her team’s season was in jeopardy.
“This may not have been our final goal but we’re here to play and win,” Corral said. “Any postseason tournament is another chance to play with your team and play for what you’re about.”
Whether it was disappointment over missing the NCAA tournament for the second year in a row or a pesky UCSB squad, USC seemed to be in a lull for much of the first half.
The Women of Troy led by as many as six points in the half before the Gauchos made their charge.
Sparked by its bench, UCSB closed the first half on a 22-12 run and took a 38-34 lead into halftime.
Back-to-back three-pointers by Corral in the closing minutes of the half kept the margin from being even greater.
Reserve players Nicole Nesbit, Sweets Underwood and Melissa Zornig combined for 25 points on 11-of-17 shooting in the half for UCSB.
The Gauchos outscored USC’s bench 25-13 in the first half.
That momentum carried over into the second half, with the Gauchos taking on the role of aggressor.
UCSB landed a proverbial punch in the mouth to open the second half, quickly expanding its lead to double digits.
Every dead ball and timeout was punctuated by cheers from the UCSB players and fans.
USC, by contrast, looked dead in the water.
But the Women of Troy — buoyed at times by Corral’s intensity and timely shooting — responded and summoned the energy for one last gasp.
USC chipped away at the lead behind the playmaking of Corral and senior guard Jacki Gemelos.
With seven minutes left, the Women of Troy made their move.
“There was a point where everybody was exhausted,” said junior guard Briana Gilbreath. “[But] because of how hard we practice we had another level. We [picked] up our intensity on defense. The [end of the game] is where we really took over and stepped up as a team.”
Four points apiece by Gilbreath and Gemelos helped the Women of Troy break open a 57-57 game. Lockdown defense by the entire team helped USC preserve the victory as the Gauchos scored just four points in the final six-and-a-half minutes of the game.
The Women of Troy forced the Gauchos into a bad shot on what should have been their final possession of the game, but a turnover by Corral during the ensuing scramble gave UCSB one last chance.
UCSB guard Emilie Johnson, who led the Gauchos with 17 points, threw up a desperation heave at the buzzer that fell well short, allowing the Women of Troy to escape the opening round with a three-point victory.
“The key was playing score and time,” said USC coach Michael Cooper. “We didn’t want them to score three, so I thought our defense was excellent, and we did what we had to do.”
Gemelos and Gilbreath both added 13 points for the Women of Troy. Gemelos just missed out on a double-double with a team-high nine rebounds.
USC moves on to a second-round game on Sunday at 2 p.m. against Nevada.